Monday, 21 January 2013
I am currently the Priest at two Churches in Nottingham. One of the Churches is in a area with a large immigrant population, and at that Church, over the last few months, we have seen a steady increase in numbers. This is good news. Many of the new Mass attendees are African, which is of course also good news. Many of these new African mass goers (at my Church) are clearly good Catholics, however I have become increasingly aware of a good proportion who don't quite know the Catholic language, so when I got called "minister" this morning, or when one of the young boys tells his mum in my hearing that "Father has a phone like our Pastor" I begin to wonder what is going on, which I'm not sure is quite such good news...
I have tried to ask directly what is going on but people seem to suddenly get quite vague. But to the best of my awareness I seem to have a fair few who were baptised Catholic, then spent time at Pentecostal Churches, and have now decided to come back to the Church of their birth, this is good. However I also seem to have a fair few who I suspect, though they may have been baptised Catholic, do not actually perceive themselves as Catholic at all, rather as generically "Christian" and simply come to us because they currently like something about the way we do mass, or find our time or location convenient. I expect however, that should they get bored they'd just as happily go to a New Testament Church of God Church, or Kingdom International Ministries Church of the Apostles (I made that last one up, but you get the idea..). This, to be honest, worries me, for it implies that for some reason they haven't fully grasped that the "Catholic" thing is essential, that it isn't equally valid to be in a Pentecostal Church as in the Catholic Church, indeed in the strict sense, the Pentecostal Church isn't even a Church at all. Jesus founded the Catholic Church alone as the ark of Salvation, and while other Christian communities share in something of that reality, it is, as it were, by reflected glory, and for a Catholic to have such indifferentism, is a serious problem. I realise that this is exactly what the Ecumenical movement has often sought to achieve, but it needs to be resisted.
There is an episode of The Simpsons which has to rank as my all-time favourite where Homer and Bart convert to Catholicism. It has to be said they don't do so for the most noble of reasons. Bart converts because having been thrown out of the state school due to his behaviour they managed to get him into a Catholic school. While in the catholic school he discovers the stories of the saints and is so inspired by the gory and gruesome details of their suffering that he decides to convert. Homer largely converts on the discovery that his local Catholic Church has a bingo evening!
The episode has some great lines however, at one point, explaining his decision to Marge (his wife), Homer informs her that the Catholic Church has Spain, Italy, The Philippines, South America, huge swathes of Africa and “the best part of Ireland”. Another great line from Homer in the episode is “once you going Vatican you can't go back again”.
Marge Simpson has a nightmare in which she and Homer have both died and gone to heaven. However they haven't gone to the same heaven. Marge has ended up in Protestant heaven which is located on a fluffy white cloud and is full of bored people playing croquet. Across a big expense of sky on another cloud is Catholic heaven and in Catholic heaven we see the Irish Catholics fighting in a bar but never getting hurt, we see South American Catholics Salsa dancing and there is no end of drinking, singing and partying and there of course in the middle of it all, having a great time is Jesus. Marge wakes up horrified.
Why do I mention this? Because I think what this episode of The Simpsons shows is actually quite a prevalent understanding in the wider society, that no matter whatever you can say about Catholics, at least they know how to enjoy themselves. This idea isn’t only found in popular culture (like the Simpsons), but is also found in more refined understandings. For example Hillaire Belloc's,
“Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
There is this impression that to be a Catholic, unlike other religions, still allows you to be fully human. But does this actually have any basis in reality? Well I think it probably does. If we look in history we find that every time the Catholic vision is thrown out by a society it tends to be replaced by some puritanical regime instead. The truth is that indeed wherever the Catholic sun does shine, not only do you find fasting and prayer, you also find feasting, festivals, processions, eating and drinking, sumptuous art and music, sheer human exuberance. Many other religions, including some other forms of Christianity are very world denying, and try and drive out the human, this world. Catholicism positively revels in it.
Is this just a cultural difference, is this just coincidence, or is it something intrinsic to Catholicism. When Belloc talks of “laughter and good red wine” is that really a Catholic quality, or simply a Mediterranean quality, which happens to be Catholic? I am convinced that it really is a Catholic quality, maybe in some Catholic countries you have to replace the “good red wine” with “Guiness”, but the reality stands.
So why is the Catholic faith so celebratory, so “earthy”. Look at our gospel reading. We find Jesus at a wedding party, the guests have run out of wine, you don’t run out of wine at a wedding unless the guests have consumed more than you bargained for, this was a proper party, these people were singing and dancing and drinking. “Do something Jesus” says Mary. Jesus tells her that his hour had not yet come, he hadn’t really come to make free wine, he’d come to bring redemption to the world, yet Mary ignores him, “Do whatever he tells you” Jesus acquiesces and makes more wine, not just some but gallons of the stuff.
Now non catholics often try to play down this story, not so for Catholics, The difference? Catholics take “Stuff” seriously. Most other religions (and Protestantism) try and save us FROM stuff, Catholicism believes God saves us THROUGH stuff. The difference is fundamental, we have a sacramental faith, we take seriously that God took flesh and dwelt among us. He underwent the messy experience of birth, he played in the dirt, suckled at the breast, knew hunger, tiredness and died a miserable painful death. He also feasted and celebrated, knew friendship and family. In the incarnation God came to us through physical stuff, and he still comes to us through physical stuff, through bread and wine, through water and oil, through the laying on of hands. In Christ the invisible God has been made visible, revelation and reason meet, divine teaching and human thinking, the physical and the spiritual, God and humanity. It is this that gives Catholicism its genius, it is this that makes Catholicism the foundation of the greatest culture ever known, for our faith teaches us that the physical creation around us is infused with the divine, that God is in the stuff around us, and indeed within us, and he is carrying out his work of redemption through stuff. Therefore our human activities, art, culture, work, play, laughter, human love, family and yes even good red wine, can all, when rightly understood, point towards God, and be part of Gods great Gift to us. God is not a puritan, he is a God of the feast, and it is not for nothing that the Church’s final consummation in heaven is compared to a wedding banquet.
As Catholics we have a God given duty to rejoice in this physical life. This isn’t of course the whole story, but perhaps some times we are in danger of forgetting this side of it.
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.